19 October 2015

A Cultural Understanding of the Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27) - Part 1

I would like to take a look at a parable that you are all probably familiar with, but one where much of the meaning gets lost by our modern thought and lack of cultural background. Most bible readers these days are quick to just accept their initial surface level reading, and end up missing much of what is actually being taught.

This is of course one of the root problems in the modern church; they take a real generic understanding, add to that the habit of ripping verses out of their context. Then compile this error with ignoring audience relevance as well as the historical and cultural backgrounds to what they are reading. Once we start to see the cultural understanding of things, we can begin seeing much more and things start to make more sense in the whole scheme of things.

Before we jump into the parable, let me just go over some background information on parables as a review. First off, what exactly is a parable? Here are some technical definitions given by various sources:

…denotes a placing beside...It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison….It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson. (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, pg. 830)

The Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period tells us parables are:

Instructional narrative, metaphors, or similes, which appear throughout Mediterranean and Egyptian literature of antiquity.

Important to the discussion today, is that this last definition refers to the fairly common place of the use of parable with ancient literature. Speaking in parables was more of a cultural practice back then that it is in our time, and for that reason, we may not grasp as much from them without a little work in understanding them.

Scholars and historians speak of two types of theologians; the conceptual and the metaphoric. A conceptual theologian is typically what we in the West have practiced for centuries – it is one who constructs theology from ideas held together by logic. Theologians like this tend to be more serious, abstract and write in a scholarly manner, making them harder to understand by the average person.

Paul works with both ideals and metaphors – but in the West we tend to emphasize his ideas and concepts, and push to the side his metaphors – thus making him out to be more of a conceptual theologian in our minds.

On the opposite side, most people view Yeshua as purely metaphoric – or as Kenneth Bailey put it – “a village rustic creating folktales for fisherman and farmers.” Yeshua’s primary way of teaching was through metaphor, simile, parable, and dramatic action, rather than through reasoning and logic.

For some people, this takes Yeshua out of the category of a serious theologian or philosopher, and puts him strictly in a category of being more like a dramatist or poet. They turn him into a man who gave lots of nice little teachings about love and good living, and not much about deep theology.

However, for those who have seriously examined his parables and metaphors more closely, have found that they are filled with serious theology. Much of this theology is easily missed due to our minds being filled with our own modern cultural thoughts which miss the application of what he is saying.

Metaphors are used to communicate ideas in a way that rational arguments are not always able to do. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, metaphors are like picture stories to help get points across. We sometimes use them today when we speak using stories and examples to get our point across.

A metaphor though, is not just an illustration of the idea, it is a form of theological discourse, and a parable is an extended metaphor that sets the scene for viewing things through a new worldview lens.

We tend to want to view these parables as a good launching point for a general idea being put across, but that is not really the proper way to view them, or not really the way they were viewed historically in that culture. I like the way Bailey states it:

The listener/reader of the parable is encouraged to examine the human predicament through the worldview created by the parable. The casing is all that remains after a shell is fired. Its only purpose is to drive the shell in the direction of the target. It is easy to think of a parable in the same way and understand it as a good way to “launch” an idea. Once the idea is “on its way” the parable can be disregarded. But this is not so. If the parable is a house in which the listened/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence. Such is the reality of the parables created by Jesus of Nazareth, a reality that causes a special problem. (Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels)

He goes on to describe how - when it comes to the logic and reasoning as modern theologians do, the understanding of the theology involved requires  a clear mind and a little hard work. However, for the theology presented by Yeshua, grasping what is being portrayed in his stories and dramatic events is not always grasped by contemporary readers, and to fully understand, requires knowledge of the culture of the storyteller.

So, we will never truly grasp the nature and implications of his sayings without having a grasp on the surrounding culture of which he spoke those things.

In order to truly unlock the truths in the parables, we must first consider a few necessary steps. First, we must realize that digging for the true meaning is necessary and important.  Sure, anyone can read the Bible and be blessed by much of what is said; we may even receive blessing from a misapplied use of the stories and events we read. However, an ear better trained in the language and culture of the Bible will hear and understand much more from the text and its true intent.

To avoid doing the work required to get this understanding, the modern church tends to “indigenize” them – figuring the first century people thought and acted much like we do today, and we interpret based on modern understandings. We look at these stories as just little ditties that have a universal appeal to all men for whatever they can get from them. This makes the understanding of the Bible to be more of a relative book of teachings that varies from person to person, with no absolute meaning. I believe this type of mentality is one of the main causes of all of the disagreements, debates, and divisions in the church that leads to a new church on every corner that cannot get along with the church down the street.

We read stories like that of the prodigal son, and we see a rebellious teen, a jealous brother, and a loving father, and we just take the nice story as application for what we can. However, we totally miss the fact that in the Middle Eastern culture where this story was taking place, for a son to ask for his inheritance while the father was still alive, was equal to telling the father you wished he would just drop dead. This greatly heightens the loving response of the father in the story, who normally should have gotten mad and cast the son out of the house.

Secondly, in order to get a better understanding, we need to realize the historical nature of the Word of God. The Bible is truly the Word of God, but it is also to be seen as the Word of God spoken through real people in real historical settings. Ignoring the historicity of it will mean missing the original intent and audience relevance. It is interesting how most people remember and apply the historical settings of other literature we read, but ignore it when it comes to the Bible.

Thirdly, we must seek to find the meanings in the parables that are legitimate, and not seek to stretch the boundaries of the metaphor too far. In other words, we cannot over examine every jot and title of a story looking for meanings and parallels in everything it says. This again is where audience relevance comes in – for we cannot force a meaning or understanding into the story that would have been totally alien to the original audience.

People throughout the centuries have found interpretations within the stories of Yeshua that have enforced their own views and ideas, ideas like Marxism, Existentialism, etc. – but that would have been totally foreign to anything Yeshua ever intended or thought to convey to his audience.

So, in essence, I think Bailey put it best when he summarized by saying:

Simply stated, our task is to stand at the back of the audience around Jesus and listen to what he is saying to them. Only through that discipline can we discover what he is saying to any age, including our own.

Look with me please at Mat 13:10 where we are told why Yeshua chose to speak in parables, or as the literal translation puts it, similes:

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

    ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, 
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.
    For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
    lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
    and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt 13:10-17 ESV)

So, we can see from Yeshua’s own words that he was intentionally speaking in such a manner that made it more difficult to understand, because the main target audience he came to speak to, were already pretty much blind and deaf to the truth. And he was instead coming to those who were given the ears to hear, that the plans of God would be fulfilled through them instead.

In the next part I will begin looking at the parable itself now that we have a basic background established. 

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4